Voters looked beyond statistics in choosing Kirk Gibson for MVP award
Jos'e Canseco of Oakland had to be the MVP of the American League this past season. He became the only player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same year. He overpowered his league in leading Oakland into the World Series. Kirk Gibson, voted MVP of the National League, is a different story. Gibson did not lead the league in any of the major offensive categories - batting average, home runs, or runs batted in. Yet the baseball writers chose the veteran Los Angeles outfielder over Darryl Strawberry, Kevin McReynolds, Andy Van Slyke, and Will Clark, all of whom out-hit him in various departments.
I congratulate the writers who looked beyond statistics. These perceptive writers asked what does the word valuable mean, and they announced it meant team success, not just a man's total of hits.
The Dodgers had had two miserable finishes with totals of 73 wins against 89 losses. Kirk Gibson became a free agent at Detroit, and Los Angeles signed him. This turned two teams around. The Dodgers improved to 94-67, won the National League West title, upset the New York Mets in the playoffs, and defeated Oakland in the World Series. The Tigers, meanwhile, could certainly have used Gibson in their unsuccessful bid to catch Boston in the American League East race.
Both Strawberry and McReynolds, the two men closest to Gibson in the voting, agreed with the outcome. Both said Gibson had improved the attitude of the Dodgers and helped make Los Angeles a hard-nosed ball club that fought to win. Both said Gibson played a leadership role.
From his beginning days at spring training, Gibson made it plain he came to play to win, and not to play little-boy games in the clubhouse. A fellow Dodger put lamp black in his cap, and Gibson stormed from the clubhouse in a rage. The Dodgers got the message then and there - and settled down to business.
A winning ball club must have leadership, no matter from where it comes. Managers don't pay too much attention to statistics. Joe McCarthy told me when he was so successful at Yankee Stadium that managing was two words - ``memory and patience.'' A good manager remembers, he knows what player is valuable, what player to pinch hit, what pitcher to pitch. When the going gets tough, the manager knows who doesn't get ``white around the lips.''
Athletes are generally considered physical beings who perform wonderful physical feats. Yet equally important is the realization that an athlete, as is each of us, is a spiritual being. What Gibson did for the Dodgers was to install a spiritual strength.
Joe DiMaggio was a magnificent leader in his Yankee years - on the field and in the clubhouse. Enos Slaughter was a hard-nosed leader for his Cardinals. Pete Rose was an all-out player. Frank Robinson kept the fires burning at Baltimore. Pee Wee Reese at Brooklyn was a quiet leader - manager Burt Shotton called him ``my ringer.'' Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey said, ``was the most competitive player since Ty Cobb.'' Jackie goaded his fellow players. These are just a few examples of players who showed the way.
Managers must supply leadership at various times and in various ways. Leadership by managers is not by clubhouse ragings and rantings.
When Leo Durocher, just before the 1947 season, was suspended by commissioner Happy Chandler, he told the team goodbye. I asked outfielder Dixie Walker what Leo said.
Dixie said he told us ``to trust Mr. Rickey, that he would get us the right manager. You know, Red, I never liked the fellow, but Leo could get you to play better ball than you knew you could.''
In the 1958 World Series, the Milwaukee Braves got the Yankees down 3 games to 1, with Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette poised to pick up the fourth victory. Everybody said the only question was which pitcher would end the Series. Gil McDougald told me later that even the Yankee players felt the jig was up.
Gil said, ``We were dressed in the clubhouse, but Casey hadn't arrived. The Old Man was never known to be late. Finally, Stengel walked in, calm as a cucumber, put on his uniform and sat down at his desk and wrote out the lineup. Just like nothing had happened.
``He was so unconcerned, held no meeting, that we players figured if he wasn't upset, why should we be. So we took it as just another ball game, and went out and won it. We did the same the next day and the day after.
``He was so calm that terrible day when we were down 3 games to 1 that we got calm too, and won the Series.''
The most leadership a manager ever gave a ball club was Shotton at Brooklyn in 1947. No team was ever as upset and torn apart as were the Dodgers. Their strong manager, Leo Durocher, suspended by the commissioner just as the season began. No manager for the first two games of the year. Jackie Robinson, the first black man put on the team. Several players threatening a revolt. A shaky pitching staff. Trouble over Robinson, especially in St. Louis, where a potential players' strike had to be nipped in the bud by Ford Frick, the league president.
Rickey brought in his old friend, Shotton, who had been out of baseball two years, to take over the most troubled ball club in history. He had been out of the National League since 1934. Shotton had declared he wouldn't wear a uniform again when he retired in 1945. He didn't, yet he put his strong, quiet hand on the Dodgers, even won the pennant, and was never seen by the fans on the field.
Leadership is spiritual.